In the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shooting in February 2015—when Deah Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, were killed by their 44-year-old neighbor—police hesitated to call the shooting a hate crime. After Craig Hicks’s arrest, Chapel Hill police announced that the ruthless killings were “motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.” But for many in the Muslim community, the Chapel Hill shooting wasn’t an isolated event. It was just one of many instances of Islamophobia that Muslims in America experience on a regular basis.
“After the shooting, I remember going on YikYak, and the hate speech was just blowing my mind,” said Ayesha Faisal, current president of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association. “It was hours after the shooting. Out of nowhere there were people saying…‘It was justified because Muslims are terrorists.’”
For students and residents of Chapel Hill, though, Islamophobia is more diffuse than a single violent shooting. Take UNC Chapel Hill alumna Aisha Anwar, who was walking to her bus stop when she was startled by a car’s honk from across the street. Turning to face the noise, she locked eyes with a man behind the wheel of a car outfitted with a Trump/Pence bumper sticker. “It seemed like an innocent mistake. He didn’t look angry or yell anything,” she said, so she kept walking. But once at the bus stop, she heard honking again. The same car sped past her. “As far as harassment goes, this is fairly tame,” Anwar said. “But I was very shaken not only to have been caught off guard twice…but to realize that he had followed me on my way to the bus—a path I took every day,” she said. “There was no knowing if he would come back a third time, or if I would run into him again some other day.”
Anxious, Anwar immediately texted Hamza Butler, the then–vice president of UNC Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association. “Hamza was very quick to check that I was safe,” she said. “He asked if the person had seen where I lived or if I thought he was coming back. He stayed on the phone with me until I was on campus and in class. His response and support helped me feel safer.”
This was the kind of network of support and safety Butler envisioned when he created Project Mawla, an open-source, Web-based app released last December that allows students and residents of Chapel Hill to document anti-Muslim incidents. Inspired by the work of figures like Ida B. Wells, whose documentation of lynchings helped expose rampant racial violence in America at the turn of the century, Project Mawla was created as a “counterpoint to the systemically supported notion that Islamophobia neither exists nor affects the livelihood of American Muslims,” according to its website. The app is currently run by UNC Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association, one of the largest student groups on campus with over 300 members.
“Hate doesn’t just come out of nowhere,” said Fatema Ahmad, a member of the North Carolina–based advocacy group Muslims for Social Justice and a 2009 Duke University graduate. “Individual racist action does not just naturally happen without a system of cultural and institutional racism that surrounds people and allows someone to feel emboldened enough to commit a brutal murder like that.”
Butler, a 2016 UNC graduate, had been friends with Deah Barakat. He’d visited Barakat’s apartment the week before the shooting and said he remembered hearing about his neighbor and that he had previously threatened Barakat with a gun. When he first heard about the shootings, he said he immediately knew who did it—many people knew that Hicks had acted violently before. “It’s very troubling that it’s the first place my mind went, when usually things like that should be shocking and so sudden you can’t even assume an explanation,” he said. “But looking within the context of racism and Islamophobia, it was like seeing a tape recorder play again and knowing that these were the usual factors involved.”
It was this feeling, one that arises in the wake of a shooting as much as it does after being followed and honked at, that spurred Butler and a team of five Web developers to create Project Mawla.Americans still view Muslims the most negatively out of all other religious groups. After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims were 17 times more common, and in 2011 they were still six times as common as they were before 2001. In 2015, the number of hate crimes began to rise again, and in 2016, there was a 197 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate groups.
Yet, according to a UNC campus security report, there were no reported hate crimes from 2013 to 2015. According to Randy Young, media-relations manager for UNC Public Safety, UNC doesn’t investigate hate crimes. “Hate crimes are investigated as crimes,” he said. “If there are elements (of a hate crime) that are present, the state will investigate that for additional elements.”
Proving hate crimes on a state level is difficult: Five states don’t include text for hate crimes in their statutes at all, and many police treat hate crimes as isolated acts of violence. “The reality is that anti-Muslimness is connected to other systems of violence,” Butler said. “When you treat hate crimes as isolated events, and when you create these high standards for them to prove, it completely takes away any foundation to prove something like that.” As a result, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 52 percent of all violent victimizations were not reported to the police between 2006 and 2010, a phenomenon that matches up with UNC’s report of hate crimes. “When I was younger—especially in high school—I didn’t know that I should’ve actually gone to a teacher or administrator when I was harassed,” said Ahmad. “I was afraid if I brought it up nothing would happen,” or, worse, she would be outed for disclosing at all. “Things might get worse,” she said.
Rather than reporting crimes to police, Project Mawla allows Muslims to report incidents to the Chapel Hill Muslim community. “It’s important to understand the context in which they have to make themselves vulnerable in reporting these things, and that’s why I really think Project Mawla is necessary,” said Butler. “It creates that space in which you’re going to your Muslim community and not the police or other state institutions.” Because of this, the app not only documents incidents but, in doing so, helps educate locals about the prevalence of Islamophobia in their community.
Project Mawla also allows people to document disturbing incidents that don’t necessarily meet the definition of crimes: “No experience of mistreatment is ‘too small.’ No narrative of suffering, unweighted,” reads the website’s homepage. That could mean being asked to prove that you are Muslim in order to be excused from an exam to celebrate a holiday, as Butler had to, or being made to feel like the token Muslim for classes that mentioned the Middle East, as UNC graduate Nicole Fauster experienced.
Documentation is powerful. Shortly after the Chapel Hill shooting, a group of student activists took to documenting Islamaphobia under the hashtag #NotSafeUNC. Using the hashtag, students expressed their experiences with micro-aggressions they faced on campus. “This wasn’t something that was unique to Chapel Hill, but the circumstances that were in Chapel Hill at the time had acted as a catalyst for us to want to create this hashtag,” said Fauster, who started the campaign. In addition to educating people on Islamophobia, with this information Project Mawla hopes to track and analyze the information gathered from the app to help other communities respond to incidents like these, and to eventually publish a report with an interactive map of anti-Muslim incidents.
However, the same factors that make many Muslims reluctant to report anti-Muslim instances to authorities may also contribute to the fact it has yet to be used. Butler also said he has found that people are accessing and exploring the app, but not documenting. “I think it’s important to remember how recounting trauma can be incredibly hard for victims of racial, gendered and/or sexual violence,” said Butler. “In a society that thrives off of victim blaming and silencing, I can imagine and know many Muslims who experience traumatic events and view silence as a viable method of decreasing their vulnerability.”
Though the app has yet to take off, it has received support from people across North Carolina’s Research Triangle and appears on UNC MSA’s website as a resource for Muslim students. “I would definitely use it in the future and encourage others to use it as well,” Anwar said. “I think it’s important in that [Project Mawla] has the potential to play a role in shaping community-based responses to violence targeted at Muslims and those profiled as such.”
“It’s definitely our responsibility, not only to ourselves but also to other people of color and other underrepresented groups, to speak up ” said Faisal.
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at [email protected].